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Bloomfield’s local news innovator

Moscow-born, Fair Lawn-bred Simon Galperin works to build community

Simon Galperin
Simon Galperin

The top stories on Monday’s newsletter from the Bloomfield Info Project concerned registration and sponsorship for the recreation department’s golf outing next month. Next up was word that Essex County is accepting submissions for a senior citizen art show.

In fewer than 400 words, it continued with information on a library book club, children’s dance classes, job interviews at a nearby medical center, and New Jersey’s extension of a deadline to apply for rental assistance.

Simon Galperin, the Bloomfield resident who launched the nonprofit Bloomfield Info Project in early 2020, sees the newsletter as the first step in rebuilding local news in the wake of the internet’s decimation of local newspaper advertising, and of the weakening of local community in the face of the polarizing nature of social media.

It’s not just his dream. Funders such as the Morristown-based Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation have bought into it. And as a John S. Knight Journalism fellow at Stanford University (conducted mostly remotely), he has a community of professional colleagues helping him chart his course.

Mr. Galperin, 32, grew up in Fair Lawn, a dozen miles north of Bloomfield, but he was born in Moscow to parents from Ukraine. His mother, Irene Galperin, converted to Judaism. His father, Yefim Galperin, is the child of parents separated when the Nazis invaded. His grandmother fled to Kazakhstan. His grandfather, a Soviet soldier, was a prisoner of war who escaped the Nazi prison camp when they discovered he was Jewish and then lived out the war under a different name. Mr. Galperin suspects his father was conceived at their postwar reunion.

His parents moved to America in 1992 “to get the chance to have a better life,” Mr. Galperin said. “It was only after moving to the United States that my father felt he had the freedom of religious expression to explore his Judaism.”

The family initially settled in Brooklyn and then moved to Fair Lawn, where Simon felt “very siloed from my community being a Russian Jewish immigrant. There was a Jewish community and there was a Russian Jewish community there but I never felt like I really fit into any of them” – in part because he lived in a different part of town from most of Fair Lawn’s other immigrants. “We did go to Shomrei Torah for some time when I was a preteen, and I tried again later in my late teens, but I never felt like I really connected with folks in that community.”

He didn’t feel connected until high school, when he found a strong group of friends, dubbed “the Russkies.”

Irene Galperin is a technical designer for fashion companies. (“Some people make sure it looks nice,” Mr. Galerpin explained. “She makes sure it actually fits.”)

Yefim Galperin was a filmmaker in Russia; when Simon was growing up, he worked at WMNB, the Russian television station based in Fort Lee.

Which is to say: Simon Galperin came into the world of media naturally. “I don’t remember specifically when I wanted to become a journalist, but I’ve always seen it as a public service,” he said.

After high school, he went to Bergen Community College and then to Rutgers, where he started Muckgers, a “hyperlocal digital outlet covering Rutgers University. Our goal was to give ourselves a space to do digital journalism. We did a couple of great stories and we made a bit of a ruckus.”

He studied overseas — in Jordan, Morocco, Northern Ireland, East Africa — taking courses in conflict, Arabic, wildlife ecology, and anthropology; he majored in journalism and media studies. When he graduated, though, he didn’t like the journalism jobs he saw on the market. So he worked in a social justice journalism lab at Rutgers, and then went to the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism for a degree in “engagement journalism,” which “opened up so many doors and possibilities for me,” leading him to start his nonprofit, the Community Information Cooperative, which operates the Bloomfield Info Project.

Simon Galperin is at Bloomfield’s Juneteenth celebration this year.

As it happened, it was immersion in the world of journalism that catalyzed Mr. Galperin’s Jewish identity. He had gone on Birthright “and still did not feel very connected to who I was as a Jew, other than the sense of victimization I think we all sort of feel culturally,” he said.

“And then as I started working in engaged journalism in my mid-20s, I started to meet Jews who were doing this work because of their vision, because of their faith, because of their culture. I “saw a throughline for my people I had not seen before. Now I feel like I have a firm stake in it.

A journalism conference in Italy in 2018 provided a turning point.

“I met a South African Jew now living in Turkey,” Mr. Galperin said. “And I was like, ‘Can you tell me about the Jewish culture where you’re from?’ And he goes, ‘Oh, we were anti-apartheid. We were on the side of oppressed people.’

“This opened up a door for me. Now I know there are all these grassroots Jewish organizations working for peace and to dismantle white supremacy. These things weren’t on my radar.”

All of this clicked into place during his interview for the Stanford fellowship, he wrote in an essay about his fellowship experience. “I’m loaded with generational trauma that I actively work to unpack — poverty, pogroms, Nazism, Stalinism, Zionism, emigration,” he wrote.

“I’m familiar with these parts of myself but have been surprised to find out how much my trauma actually drives my work. In many ways, I’ve found that I’m a community builder because I want to build the community I never had and that everyone deserves. A place free from hate, oppression, and alienation where people have the freedom to live their best lives,” the essay continued.

When he started the Bloomfield Information project in February 2020 – he had moved to the town in 2017 –    his initial plan was to focus on research. “Then the pandemic struck.” So much for research. “We had to provide information as aid,” he said. He created a coronavirus hub for the community. “In a town of 50,000 people, there was no central place for this information. The town promised daily briefings and they stopped on the second day. So we went to work.”

For the first year and a half, it was just Mr. Galperin. Last September, he hired two staff members.

The format of the daily newsletter is guided by what the Bloomfield community wants, Mr. Galperin said. “We want to rewrite the playbook of local news, starting with people’s information needs, not with what traditional journalism and legacy reporting looks like.

“One of the first things we heard when we had our listening sessions was that there’s actually too much news and information to follow what’s happening in our community. So we started by become a clearinghouse for local news and information in the public interest. And now we’re promoting our daily product and launching other services.” These services include a food aid SMS service, which sends text messages informing subscribers about food pantries and other aid available to them.

Mr. Galperin has begun “training and paying residents to go to public meetings, take notes, and report back to our journalists, who can then report back to the community.

“We’re not chasing ambulances, we’re not chasing cops. We are asking people what they need to know. And then figuring out ways to get them that information. We are trying to improve the material conditions by improving access to news information connection in our community.”

He discovered the hard way that absent a communal infrastructure, reporting has a smaller impact than he had expected, he added.

“We did an investigation of the Bloomfield police department, finding that as a whole the department stops people of color at higher rates than white people. Our reporting found that 13 out of the 123 or 125 officers in this community stop people of color at three to four times the rate of white people. And for some of them, 80 percent of their stops are people of color.

“So we did this reporting, we wrote down their names, we explained why this is happening. I thought it was a very important story to tell. It was based in community listening, we attended a forum where people discussed the fact that black people and people of color know that Bloomfield Avenue is not a safe place for them to travel.

“And nothing happened. The town council had one of these meetings to sort of talk about it, and then silence,” Mr. Galperin said.

The moral of the story: “Without the connections, without the ability to talk to your neighbor, without the ability for 5,000 people to know about the story instead of the couple hundred we had on our newsletter list at the time, the impact of our journalism will just never be there. The connection creates the opportunity for change. Without the connection, we’re all siloed.”

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